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Denominational Deviance and Doctrinal Dilution

A recent survey conducted by Ellison Research and reported by Ron Sellers at LifeWay Christian Resources says that: “A significant proportion of ministers struggled with at least some feelings that their denomination is headed the wrong way. One-third agreed with the statement “In many ways, your denomination is moving in the wrong direction,” although only 6 percent agreed strongly with this. Methodists were particularly concerned about this (54 percent agreed with the statement), while Pentecostal/charismatic pastors were among the least likely to have this worry.”

It has been my perception over these last 50 years that denominations tend to be identified by churches in their names primarily as a way to separate themselves from other groups of churches who hold differing critical doctrines. It’s a little like restaurant franchises; when you go to a McDonalds restaurant anywhere in the world, you can pretty much expect the Big Mac to be there – though it may be called something slightly different – and you can pretty much expect that it will taste the same. If you go to a Baptist Church, you can pretty much expect to be in a church that holds the doctrinal position that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that acceptance of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ is the only path to heaven after life on this Earth is over, and that baptism of the believer is done by immersion, not by sprinkling. The more subtle beliefs and practices – those that are not so clearly based on scripture (such as whether it is all right to smoke, dance, and drink alcoholic beverages) typically form the basis of intradenominational (within the broad denomination) distinctions. For example, the General Association of Baptist Churches (GARBC) generally does not believe that alcohol, dancing, and smoking are appropriate behaviors for Christians. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches, in my experience, are more accepting of these practices. Of course, as a part of the increasingly liberal perspectives taken within seminaries and Bible colleges, a growing number of candidates for the ministry are more tolerant of doctrinal positions and general conduct that was previously not accepted well among more conservative Christian churches. This makes me think that most pastors who feel their denomination is headed “the wrong way” believe that it is becoming too liberal.

But that surmise does not appear to square with another finding from this survey, which states that: “Eighty-six percent of all Protestant pastors agreed with the statement “There should be more cooperation among different Protestant denominations.” Forty percent agreed strongly with this, and another 46 percent agreed somewhat. A majority of just about every group of ministers agreed with this sentiment, but some were more vocal about it than others. The strongest agreement came from Methodists and other members of the National Council of Churches, while Baptists were among those less likely to feel strongly about this. Among Baptists, 30 percent agreed strongly, and another 49 percent agreed somewhat.”

Sellers seems to me to strike close to – but not directly on – the answer to this little puzzle later in his article, when he says: “Mainline denominations are being split apart by severe differences between liberal and conservative elements on major issues such as abortion, homosexuality, syncretism, and the primacy of Scripture. Many pastors in these denominations find they have more in common with like-minded conservatives or liberals from other denominations, rather than with pastors holding opposing viewpoints within their own denomination.”

One of the primary reasons that Christianity – and Christian churches in particular – is becoming more liberal is that many of those entering the pastorate are more liberal. They are more tolerant in areas that the Bible has condemned with abundant clarity. There is no doubt about the Bible’s positions in areas like homosexuality, abortion, and the primacy of scripture. Moving off dead center in terms of the doctrinal positions of the Bible is like throwing out the US Constitution; each effort to move us further and further away from the core doctrines of our faith takes us further away from the source of God’s blessings. It introduces human reasoning in place of divine instruction, and the results of that path have always been disastrous for the Christians who are involved. Perhaps the best illustration of that from the Bible is located in 1 Corinthians 1:10-14. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”

Clearly, the Apostle Paul had little patience for the introduction of human thinking that divided the body of believers into sects. He implored them to “join together in the same mind and in the same judgment”. Now the difficult part of this approach in modern day Christianity is that accommodating the perspectives of multiple church associations within a denomination, and even more broadly between Protestant denominations, is extremely unlikely. Even with the current trajectory of liberalizing pastors and congregations, some doctrinal positions are going to be very tough to overcome. An example that comes to mind is often referred to as “Eternal Security”, or “Once Saved, Always Saved.” Even among denominations that are otherwise very closely aligned – such as Church of Christ and Baptist churches, that issue would likely be insurmountable for many churches. There are many others as well; some as seemingly small as baptism by immersion versus sprinkling, which tends to separate Presbyterian and Baptist denominations.

The clear and present danger here, in my view, is the propensity in situations like these to compromise on central doctrine. Personally, my view is that anything not spoken to directly in the Bible is not a doctrinal matter, and therefore should not be sufficient reason for a distinctive “Association”, “Denomination”, or other fraternal grouping among churches that profess to follow Christ. I have no issue with whether churches accept dancing as a practice among their congregants, for example – even David “danced before the Lord” in celebration. But when it comes to fundamental doctrine like “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;” there is no room in my view for retreat or compromise. It is what it is. Anyone introducing a priest or other interlocutor into the middle of the relationship between God and Man is violating scripture, and that is not acceptable. So those are my thoughts on this matter. I am eager to hear yours.

What do you think?

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